NASA announced that the first launch of its deep space exploration rocket set to launch in 2019 will be unmanned, and that a mission with a crew will be pushed back to at least 2022.
The space agency conducted a feasibility study for the Space Launch System in February, after the current US administration asked NASA if two astronauts could join the first test flight, originally scheduled in 2018, UPI reports.
Acting administrator for NASA, Robert Lightfoot Jr., said at a press conference, “We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight.” He further said, “The bi-partisan support of Congress and the president for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong.”
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s head of human spaceflight programs, said at the same conference,
The risk was reasonable, but it was additional risk. It was going to cost more.
According to the feasibility study, SLS and Orion – the module that would theoretically carry the astronauts – might be ready for a crewed mission on their initial launch by the first half of 2020, but it would take an additional $600 to $900 million in funding. This would be used to finish Orion’s heat shield, its life support systems and its launch abort system, which are all necessary to keep astronauts alive inside.
NASA has already spent over $26 billion on this program alone, said agency’s inspector general.
The inaugural, unscrewed SLS launch has been re-scheduled for 2019. A second SLS is planned for 2022, which will send a crew into orbit around the moon, carried by an upgraded version of the rocket that has a more powerful upper stage.
Lightfoot said that NASA was not asked to have a Mars expedition ready soon, and the goals for reaching the Red Planet is for the 2030s. He said, “Taking folks farther than we ever have before just isn’t necessarily the most easy proposition in the world. We’re looking for a sustainable program here, more than just one mission.”
NASA had to postpone its plans after a tornado destroyed the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February. This month, workers at the same facility accidentally damaged a large dome that was to be part of a liquid oxygen fuel tank, which has further set back the ongoing project.